CLAYTON • St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch on Thursday denounced the county Economic Council's recent hiring of a convicted felon, and called for the employee's dismissal.
Last week, the council hired Dean Burns, 60, to serve as its vice president of real estate and community development, with an annual salary of $127,816.
Burns was working in the very same job in 1999 when he acceded to then-County Executive George R. "Buzz" Westfall's demand that he quit after Burns pleaded guilty of diverting federal funds.
Burns admitted illegally transferring $30,000 in Housing and Urban Development rent deposits to his private company in 1994, about two years before he joined the Economic Council.
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"I am mystified by this choice," McCulloch said. "This guy admitted skimming money from HUD, and now he's in charge of revitalizing underprivileged areas of the county, which means that he no doubt will come into contact with HUD."
McCulloch said Burns' hiring was akin to the county Health Department hiring a former drug addict to purchase pharmaceuticals.
"Hiring a felon is one thing, but you have to have some common sense about it," he said. "I don't know what the people who hired him were thinking, but I have to question their judgment. This makes the county look bad, and county government ought to correct it as soon as possible."
Burns, of Clayton, had most recently worked as senior vice president at Gundaker Commercial Group, a real estate company.
Denny Coleman, president of the Economic Council, defended the hiring.
"He has a unique combination of skills relative to development, construction, finance and urban planning with his most recent practical work experience in dealing with retail," Coleman said of Burns. "With the county's challenge of facing eviscerated malls and the excess of retail space we have, we felt he was a very good fit."
As to the county prosecutor's criticism, Coleman said, "With all due respect to McCulloch, I'm not sure what he understands about the needs of real estate development and the Economic Council.
"Obviously, I believe, when appropriate, in giving people a second chance."
Coleman has led the council since 1990. He approved the previous hiring of Burns in 1996; Burns' annual salary at that time was $59,000.
Burns, who has already started his new county job, could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
The council is the county's economic development arm but is technically separate from county government. The county executive appoints the council's board. County Executive Charlie A. Dooley could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
As part of his plea agreement in the felony conviction, Burns was ordered to spend one night in prison, was placed on probation for three years and required to pay restitution and perform community service.
He also was barred from doing business with the federal government, a prohibition that Coleman said expired more than 10 years ago.
"All the sanctions that HUD imposed on him are behind him now, and there are no restrictions against his working for the county," Coleman said.
However, in addition to the felony conviction, the federal government also sued Burns, claiming he should pay back $1.4 million that he allegedly diverted between 1992 and 1995.
That suit was settled in 2000, but the terms were not immediately available.
McCulloch said such civil suits are common in the wake of criminal convictions.
"Prosecutors charge with what we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt," he said. "That doesn't mean it's all that was there. More often than not, there's plenty more that we can't prove, but there's usually plenty of information to satisfy a civil suit."
County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, joined McCulloch in attacking Burns' hiring.
"We owe particular scrutiny to taxpayers where the convicted felon in question is hired to conduct complex financial transactions on behalf of our county," Stenger said. "I think the administration should avoid even the appearance of impropriety and rethink the hire."
Katy Jamboretz, spokeswoman for the Economic Council, said Burns would not have control over any funds as part of his job. "None, zero," Jamboretz said.
While employed at Gundaker, Burns was a defendant in numerous suits related to bank loans.
In 2010, Regions bank sued Burns and other Gundaker executives for more than $40 million it claimed it was owed for loans made on the development of the Lakeside 370 project in St. Peters. Gundaker blamed the recession for hampering development of the 900-acre business park. The suit remains in litigation.
Last year, Bank of America sued a development company called Mountain Home Retail LLC, in which Burns was a principal, for $15 million. That suit was settled after the bank repossessed the corporation's property in foreclosure.
Coleman said he was aware of those suits but did not consider them pertinent to the county job.
"We conducted a nationwide search for this job, and Dean emerged as the best choice," he said.
McCulloch expressed skepticism regarding the thoroughness of the council's hiring search.
He said, "If Burns really is the most qualified guy in the country, I'd say we probably don't need this position."